With independence looming, Kosovo to pick a flag

The province, expected to declare statehood in coming days, is also drafting a constitution and will choose an anthem.

Kosovo's bid for independence edged a step closer this week with the news that the new state's constitution, flag, and national emblem are to be decided in parliament in coming days.

After months of drafting, senior officials in the Kosovo government have said that the constitution upon which the new state will rest is almost complete, and they have short-listed designs for the flag and emblem.

The short list was supposed to be kept secret, but a source close to the Kosovo Symbols Commission, tasked with choosing the flag, described the final three designs that are to be presented to the parliament for selection.

The first, according to the source, is an outline of a map of Kosovo on a blue background, with yellow stars representing the aspiring state's ambition of eventual membership in the European Union. The second is a simple tricolor of red, white, and black vertical stripes. The third design is identical, but carries a spiral motif on the white segment.

The three designs have been whittled down from almost 1,000 entries in a public competition launched last year. The rules stipulated that the flag must not carry any image associated with an ethnic group but should be politically neutral to avoid aggravating tensions between the Albanian majority and Serb minority in Kosovo.

The condition has meant that designs based on Albania's flag, the black double-headed eagle on a red background that flutters above graves of Kosovo Liberation Army guerrilla fighters throughout the breakaway province, would not be considered. The flag is synonymous in Kosovo with the Albanian community and is the first choice of many Kosovars.

"I can't believe that these are the choices for the flag," says Shqipe Abazi. "None of the designs have anything to do with Albanian people. It should be red and black. It's a big deal – how many times does a country get to choose a flag?"

But officials were adamant that Kosovo's flag would not resemble Albania's. "We will not have the flag of any other country," said Fadil Hysa, the government adviser tasked with heading the Symbols Commission. "It cannot have an eagle," he added.

The competition attracted entries from as far as New Zealand and South Africa. There were even seven entries from Serbia.

The parliament will be presented with the designs, one of which must secure two-thirds of a parliamentary vote to be adopted. The new national flag and emblem are expected to be revealed on the day the province declares independence from Serbia.

A national anthem is not expected to be agreed until about a week after the declaration. In Pristina, the Kosovo Philharmonic Orchestra has been practicing Beethoven's Ode to Joy, which they said they would play on independence day, according to Reuters.

The Kosovo government's secretive preparation for independence has come under criticism in recent weeks. None of the trappings of statehood – a flag, national anthem, or even constitution – have been agreed on, despite a declaration of independence being expected in a matter of days. One Pristina-based newspaper predicted it would come on Feb. 17. A meeting of European foreign ministers is scheduled for the next day.

"The public consultations on the constitution have only just started." says Alex Anderson of the International Crisis Group. "None of the major laws or the constitution are in the public domain." He said there was a danger the public consultation process had been started too late, and people could be left "trying to work out what sort of state Kosovo has become" after the independence declaration.

The US diplomatic office in Pristina has been said to have been heavily involved in the process of drafting the document. But a spokesperson said that the constitution was a matter for the Kosovo government. "The Kosovar people are leading the process in drafting their constitution and are handling the constitution themselves," she said.

On the streets of Pristina, excitement is building. One hotel has paid for billboards across the city announcing it is "ready" for independence. The Gallery of Arts has prepared an Independence exhibition, and young people in bars and cafes are planning parties for what some say will be the biggest day in Kosovo's history.

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